All three Democratic presidential aspirants hope they left the Winthrop University-MSNBC stage in better favor with voters than when they arrived Friday in Rock Hill. But only one name could safely claim something akin to a win before the “First in the South” forum was even over: Winthrop University.
Bernie Sanders waved to the cheap seats in the Byrnes Auditorium – filled to capacity with nearly 3,400 people, including many Winthrop students on-stage just steps from the candidates.
“Winthrop” was one of the first words out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth when she was brought on-stage for her interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.
And Martin O’Malley took the first sip out of one of the Winthrop logo mugs placed on stage for the candidates.
Before the live TV audience ever gave Sanders and Clinton their standing ovations (O’Malley’s interview brought about one-fourth of the auditorium to its feet at the end), one eager student in the crowd started Winthrop’s “Spirit Check” chant – a sudden burst of claps, followed by a “Winthrop” yelp.
Not everyone in the auditorium was affiliated with Winthrop – many attendees were former politicians and delegates from Democratic state parties in other Southern states. But MSNBC gave the university enough air time during multiple shows this week that there’s little chance anyone could miss the school’s identity. School officials said late Friday they have not yet estimated the value of the university’s name being announced so many times on national television and in other outlets this week.
The Winthrop Chamber Singers, a select group of music majors, sang “Hardball with Chris Matthews” back from commercial Friday night as he broadcast live from the university’s front lawn facing Oakland Avenue. Inside Byrnes Auditorium, the TV audience didn’t miss a chance to cheer whenever Matthews reminded viewers he was live “from Rock Hill, South Carolina – home of Winthrop University.”
Later, closer to the forum’s 8 p.m. start, the Winthrop school spirit quickly turned into general excitement over the presidential candidates once Maddow made her way into the auditorium.
During a pre-show lineup, Winthrop President Dan Mahony welcomed the crowd to campus. Other local leaders, including Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols and S.C. Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, also were on-stage to deliver remarks.
King called Winthrop “the heart” of his House District 49. Echols told the crowd he agreed with Maddow who, on Thursday night during her live show from McHale’s in downtown, called Rock Hill “an amazing place.”
Most attendees waited more than two hours inside Byrnes Auditorium for the forum to start. MSNBC showed Matthews’ live show on a large screen on-stage and there were several VIPs who garnered the audience’s attention while they waited on the main attraction.
It took the Rev. Jesse Jackson more than 10 minutes to make his way to his seat – intercepted by throngs of people asking for photos and wanting to speak to the civil rights activist. Jackson sat quietly and was mostly stoic during most of Friday’s forum, occasionally smiling when Maddow asked quirky questions to test the candidates’ humorous sides.
For Democrats eager to see their party’s three presidential hopefuls, even the commercial breaks were entertaining on Friday night.
During one of O’Malley’s breaks, with his microphone still on, he said, “Where is my wife?” and waved enthusiastically to her in the audience.
During Sanders’ breather, several people tried to start a “Bernie” chant but it didn’t stick long.
And Clinton used her commercial break to interact with audience members and purposefully lean into the background of a selfie a few people were taking with a cellphone on the stage.
By the time it was over, most attendees seemed to have experienced what Maddow pledged to them right before the forum: “This is gonna be so much fun, I’m gonna pop.”